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Rebels offer Russia military base

Published: 8:43AM Wednesday May 14, 2008 Source: Reuters

Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region wants Russia to open a military base on its soil, the separatists' leader said in a proposal likely to anger Georgia and alarm its Western allies.

Georgia has already accused Moscow of trying to annex Abkhazia, a lush strip of land on the Black Sea coast, and the ex-Soviet state's Western backers have expressed concern that Russia's support for the separatists could stoke tension.
   
"We are in favour of Russia having a presence here in the military sense, a base here...It will give us protection," Sergei Bagapsh, president of Abkhazia's separatist administration, said in an interview.
   
Russia has given no indication it is prepared to establish a military presence in Abkhazia, though it has said if Georgia attacks it will respond, by military means if necessary.
   
Bagapsh said Abkhazia was offering to sign a military cooperation agreement with Russia modelled on a deal under which the United States guarantees military help to Taiwan if China attacks.
   
"We are ready to sign a military agreement, if Russia wants to do that...We need guarantees, guarantees of security so we can develop as a small, sovereign, democratic state," he said.
   
Abkhazia, a lush sub-tropical region where Soviet dictator Josef Stalin spent his summer vacations, threw off Tbilisi's rule in a war in the 1992-3 and since then has been running its own affairs, with support from Russia.
   
Georgia's pro-Western leadership, which is seeking membership of NATO, has vowed to re-establish control.

Tensions have risen sharply over the past two months.
   
Georgia said a Russian jet shot down one of its unmanned spy drones over Abkhazia and Moscow deployed extra peacekeeping troops to counter what it said were Georgian plans for an attack. Both sides denied the allegations.
   
The conflict is a source of instability in a South Caucasus region that is emerging as an important route for delivering oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to world markets. 
   
Military assistance
   
Russia has about 2,500 troops in Abkhazia operating as United Nations-supervised peacekeepers.

It retained a Soviet-era base there for several years but closed it down in line with a post-Cold War arms treaty.
   
Speaking in his office overlooking the palm tree-lined seafront in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, Bagapsh said Georgia was preparing to restore its control over the region by force - with the indirect help of its Western allies.
   
"It is not very good when Europe, the whole world is arming Georgia, and we are forced to arm ourselves," he said.
   
"Georgia is one of the most militarized states in the post-Soviet region...All this is being done to use force to resolve the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said, referring to a second Georgian breakway region.
   
He said Abkhazia had no interest in a new war but that it was ready and able to repel any Georgian attack.
   
"Georgia must realize that it cannot resolve either the South Ossetian question or the Abkhazian question through force. It will never work. If, God Forbid, a war starts, Georgia will lose more than anyone else," said Bagapsh.
   
"Georgia has chosen its path. That is its business. Whether it is in NATO or somewhere else, whether it develops its relations with the United States or the European Union," he said. "But it will be without us. We have made our choice."